I’m not what one would describe as a perfectionist. Gaylord and my mum commiserate about my appalling washing up and Gaylord has a mini panic attack whenever he sees how I hang laundry. There are occasional times though when I’m seemingly possessed by perfectionism; it kind of sneaks up on me and has me bound and gagged. As this is a tale of two burnt Basque cheesecakes, I think you can guess what this wily perfectionism likes to target.
Burnt Basque cheesecake was the celebrity of the food world back in 2021. I should know, I gazed doe-eyed over every single photograph on Instagram. That onyx black crust, crisp and flaky, and the smooth and supple creaminess underneath – basically, these cheesecakes have that tough exterior and gooey centre we know all bad boys to have.
Now, at last, I’m making one. (or should I say two.) Have you ever seen graphs of the innovation adoption curve? You know the one – the early adopters, the early majority, the list goes on. I’m way at the back of that queue, somewhere with the laggards (yes, amazingly, that is the technical name for them). I’m there nonchalantly cool, leaning against a chain link fence with my laggard bros, too cool for all those burnt Basque cheesecakes out there.
Two years later – hi. Please eat my cheesecake.
So, why did I make two you may be wondering?
Let me tell you.
The first one was a bit of a cock up. That may be my darned perfectionism talking, but honestly, it has control of the keyboard right now, there is little I can do.
A tale of two burnt Basque cheesecakes
Admittedly, a burnt Basque cheesecake looks like a mistake. First of all, where’s the biscuit base? And is scorching a cheesecake honestly a good idea? I can testify that yes, it really is. That surface is paper thin and shiny black, adding just the right note of caramelisation to the thick slab of solid custardy cream below. And that crisp top removes the need for a crust, so instead it feels more moussey or even cake-like.
However, none of that answers why I made two cheesecakes. Basically, what sets burnt Basque cheesecake apart from all the other cheesecakes out there is the texture. It is silky, custardy, wibbly and smooth. Forget additional flavours and biscuit bases, these cheesecakes are looking for one thing and one thing alone: mouth-feel. And my first attempt fell flat on its face.
While that wasn’t literal, it might as well have been. As I cautiously cut my first slice, I held my breath, hoping to find that silky smooth texture, but alas, it was so fluffy it looked like a hairball. You know you’ve gone wrong when your custard is crumbly. It was like someone took my cheesecake, mushed it up into a scramble, then stuck it back together again.
After research and revision like I was about to take an exam on the craft of burnt Basque cheesecake, and a quick second visit to Lidl for more cream cheese, I was ready. It turned out that I had overcooked my cheesecake while hunting for that coveted mirror-shine scorched surface. Keeping something in the oven purely to burn it didn’t strike me as strange at the time for some reason.
For round two, I took my time, slowly incorporating all the cream cheese (all 650g of it!), the sugar, cream, crème fraiche, and each individual egg. I calmly poured all the custard into the double lined tin, set it on its preheated baking tray then left the oven to do its work.
At the half hour mark though, all my cool confidence evaporated and I crouched, biting my nails in front of the oven door. After 35 minutes, the burnt Basque cheesecake centre still looked like liquid, the surface was cream colour and I was a nervous wreck.
All the while my perfectionism was yelling at me, and I flicked on the grill. Over the next excruciating three minutes, I monitored that burnt Basque cheesecake like a helicopter parent and gahhh then the surface suddenly puffed up as though it was a water balloon, that surely wasn’t supposed to happen, but at least it was appropriately charred, so I immediately snapped the oven dial to off. I checked for the wibble consistency – this cheesecake passed.
To distract myself, I poached rhubarb. While I yearn to try a chocolate burnt Basque cheesecake, the sourness of seasonal rhubarb is exactly the partner a dessert as unctuous and creamy as this cheesecake needs. After all, it is essentially a slab of dairy on your plate. A sharp fruit is just the ticket, and in this case, rhubarb looks so prettily perfect piled up on top.
After a night-long stressful wait, I finally cut into that cheesecake the next morning, before breakfast, before coffee, before brushing my hair. Aside from that wonderful high gloss finish, I was delighted to see a runnel of thick creamy set custard across the centre. A few minutes makes all the difference. Next time, I will probably overreact and take it out when the custardy middle still looks like bouncy castle, but it’s a task to exercise my perfectionism. And at least I have two burnt Basque cheesecakes to eat.
Burnt Basque Cheesecake with Poached Rhubarb
- 650 g cream cheese
- 200 g sugar
- ½ lemon zested
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 eggs and an extra yolk
- 250 ml double cream
- 150 ml crème fraiche
- 30 g cornflour
- A pinch of salt
For the poached rhubarb
- 250 g chopped rhubarb
- 2½ tbsp sugar
- 100 ml water
- 2 bashed cardamom pods or star anise, cinnamon sticks, orange peel anything you'd like
- Preheat the oven to 230°C/210°C fan/450°F. Place a baking tray on the upper shelf – first make sure there is enough space for the tin and the paper.
- Line a 8-9 inch springform baking tin with a square sheet of baking paper. First, grease the tin with some butter then push the paper into the corners, sticking to the buttery edges. Don't worry about it bunching up. Take another square of paper and repeat the process at 90° to the previous piece.
- In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese with a wooden spoon until mailable. Add the sugar and stir to combine.
- Grate in the lemon zest, add the vanilla extract then crack in an egg. Whisk to combine, then add each egg and the extra yolk one at time, whisking with each addition.
- Pour in the cream and the crème fraiche and whisk until everything is well blended. It will be fairly liquid so it may seem doubtful that it will ever set into a cheesecake but have no fear.
- In a small bowl, sift the cornflour. Add a couple of spoonfuls of cheesecake mixture and stir to create a slurry. Pour it into the creamy custard, add the pinch of salt, then stir to make sure it's all well mixed. Pour it all into the lined tin and tap it a few times to make sure there are no air bubbles.
- Carefully place the tin on the baking tray in the oven and leave to bake for 30 minutes. From there, you need to be on guard!
- Rotate the tin to make sure every side is getting the heat. The centre will still look like liquid. If the surface isn't blackened, don't worry, give it another 7-8 minutes or so – in this time, the centre will start to set quite quickly so keep your eye on it – then set the dial to the grill setting. Check every minute, rotating the tin to ensure even burning (a sentence I never thought I'd write). Between 40-45 minutes in the oven is about right, although if you'd like the centre to be more wibbly, reduce the time to around 35 minutes. Either way, when you jiggle the pan, the centre needs to ripple.
- Turn off the oven, open the door and leave the cheesecake inside for 5 minutes as it adjusts to the temperature. Place it on a cooling rack and leave for two hours, then put it in the fridge overnight. The next day, remove it from the tin, peel off the paper and cut large creamy slices.
For the poached rhubarb
- Place the chopped rhubarb in a frying pan, cover with the sugar and water, and add the spices of your choice. Set the heat to medium high to melt the sugar. Stir it all to ensure even cooking.
- Once the water starts to bubble, cook the rhubarb for up to 5 minutes depending on its thickness. For thicker pieces, they may need an extra minute. Remove them from the pan, then continue to boil the syrup for another minute or so until a bit thicker. Pour it into a bowl to cool slightly.
- Serve the poached rhubarb with the cheesecake either warm or cold.